My childhood was spent in country towns with family and friends living on farms: dairy, potato, wheat, sheep… As a teenager I accompanied my father as he travelled outback Australia in a 4WD visiting the remote cattle stations. Country life, particularly farm life, involves a lot of outdoor activities. I love being outside. For a child, farm activities often help ensure the farm is productive. This can involve feeding the animals - chooks, goats, pigs, sheep, alpacas and the domesticated pets like dogs, cats and birds. There is a huge array of animals that rural children might come into contact with on a daily basis, animals that many city children have never been close to.
Animals as livestock
Besides helping to feed animals or collect the eggs, there is the care of their sleeping quarters - mucking out the pig sties, horses’ stables and cow sheds. Removing animal manure and replacing dirty straw and hay would not be the most delightful job but it’s all part of living on a farm. Then there is the mustering of cattle or herding of sheep. Besides the farm animals and the domesticated animals, there can also be pests and predators that cause problems for the farmers. These might be foxes, rabbits, feral cats, wild boor… Out on the larger cattle stations there may be issues with feral camels, horses, goats, donkeys or problems with too many native animals like dingoes and kangaroos. How are these controlled or culled?
Animals as pets
For some, this abundance of animal life provides a different source of activity, as if seeing them through a different lens. Being able to see pigs from an alternate perspective, like the character portrayed in the movie ‘Babe’, opens our eyes and engages our imagination. People living with animals often see or create a personality for these creatures that takes on human elements. They have names and are perhaps allowed indoors. The saying, ‘A dog is a man’s best friend’ is based on the trust, loyalty and unconditional love a dog can have for its owner.
Animals are renowned for their ability to bond with humans. Even simple interactions with animals can lower blood pressure and reduce anxiety. This is in part due to the rise in levels of ‘happy hormones’ like oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin. When these hormones are released we feel a burst of positivity. We feel good. At a time when our access to human relationships can be cut off through restrictions with the global pandemic, our animal connections become paramount. This is the same for adults as much as children, whether it be a dog, a cat, a rat, a snake or even a fish.
150 years ago, the world that Beatrix Potter was born into had different restrictions and expectations. She grew up in London but spent annual holidays in the countryside of Scotland. Not attending school, they had little contact with other children, so Beatrix and her brother were close to their pets and developed a love of the countryside. Beatrix was encouraged by her governesses to draw and paint - pet rabbits, mice, lizards, frogs and snakes. Her observational skills grew and her drawings of nature and botanical elements of her environment eventually won her recognition as an accurate illustrator of botanical drawings.
But it is her watercolour paintings of Peter Rabbit and his counterparts that she is most famous for. Peter was based on her pet. In her drawings, she dressed him and gave him human-like characteristics. Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter, her four little imaginary rabbits, had many adventures in the woods and the vegetable patch. Along came Jemima Puddle-duck, Two Bad Mice, Squirrel Nutkin, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, Mrs Tittlemouse and so many more. Her stories are the best selling children’s books of all time.
Her drawings came first and then the stories evolved from these, initially stories told to friends, then letters written and illustrated. With no publisher interested in her story, eventually she made her own copies of her story of the four little rabbits and gave these little books to family and friends. However, in 1902 The Tales of Peter Rabbit was finally published and was an instant hit.
As an adult she was recognised as an artist, an author and a conservationist. She had loved her time in the country so much that, when she inherited a substantial amount of money, she bought a farm in the Lake District in the north of England. Her passion for the land and its creatures saw her go on to buy many farms in this area. She learnt how to care for the animals and plants and eventually donated 4000 acres to the National Trust.
Beatrix Potter is a shining example of how you can combine a love of animals with a love of drawing and painting to create a livelihood. Her passion and imagination have brought delight to generations of children. She grew up in the city but loved the country, farm life and animals. Her character, Peter Rabbit, has a mischievous nature and can be found causing problems in the garden. If Beatrix had lived in today's world on our farms in Australia, a rabbit may not have been the most popular choice of friend. But in the city we still love the furry bouncy bunnies.
Creating our own memories
Many of us enjoy an escape to the country, an escape from the city. In Australia, we often gravitate to the beach or the rivers and lakes. But farmstays are growing in popularity. There are many reasons why farms, and the larger outback stations, have had to reinvent themselves to remain viable financially. Bringing in tourists has been one of these developments. So even if you don’t know anyone who lives on a farm or rural property, there are ways to experience country life.
Holding on to these happy memories tends to be through photographs but if we could all be a bit more like Beatrix and paint our memories, I reckon that’s a bonus! So if you want help for your kids to create drawings of our animal friends, search Artventure for animals, sheep, duck, pig or rabbit for example. Then dress them up and write your own adventures - ‘artventures’!